Four years ago, the 25,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) demonstrated with a militant seven-day strike that they could stick together in a tough fight and win.
Since then, union leaders have continued to mobilize members and their allies, which goes a long way to explain the tentative settlement struck between the union and the Board of Education shortly before a midnight strike deadline earlier this month.
The union’s bargaining committee and its House of Delegates have approved the new contract. Members are now voting on the deal.
Although the contract is between the Board of Education and the union, its content has broad political implications. The union’s outreach as well as its own internal organizing seem to have led much of the public to trust the union on educational issues over Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose ultimate control over the board and superintendents has been tarnished by scandals.
This year, as in 2012, the union effectively challenged the corporate model of reform by casting the contract talks and potential strike as a crusade for better education. But the campaign wasn’t a cakewalk.
“I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to keep a 25,000-member organization ready for battle for a year,” said CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey.
Sharkey sat down with In These Times shortly after union negotiators tentatively approved the contract. In a wide-ranging interview, he discussed the deal, union militancy and the limits of collective bargaining. Here’s what he said.
What in that final offer from the Board of Education made it acceptable to negotiators since you had rejected previous contract frameworks?
The heart of it was [an] agreement to put $340 million of new money into the schools over the three years remaining of the contract, with $90 million in the first period.
Where will they get that money?
We’re pretty sure they’re getting it out of Chicago’s TIF [tax increment finance] fund. That includes elimination of projects like the new Obama college prep school on the north side [a predominately white, affluent part of the city]. It would have cost $60 million. It would have been another college prep school next to the other one, which was next to another one.
The board also made some important concessions on management principle. The board agreed to add staffing to oversized classes in kindergarten through 2nd grade. That’s the first time we’ve had enforceable standards on class size since 1995, when they passed the new law that took the right to negotiate that away.
On another matter involving both management prerogatives and teacher compensation, the board has been trying for a while to offer nothing to tenured teachers who are displaced, which loses the experience of veteran black teachers while also “whitening” the teaching force, with senior black teachers replaced by younger white recruits.
Is that a deliberate strategy?
I think it’s a part of school reform. Education reporter Sarah Karp detailed how as part of the teacher applicants’ rating process, 70 percent of white applicants were accepted but only 40 percent of black candidates. That was the result of the board subcontracting this service to a vendor. I don’t think it was done by the KKK, but there are built-in biases that no one bothers to check.
We got a provision in our new contract that any teacher who is rated satisfactory and is laid off will be rehired at the next opening or paid her full salary for the next 10 months. That increases the cost of such layoffs and makes them less attractive. You better really intend to lay off or else it will cost you.
Why does CPS prefer to pay salaries instead of pensions?
One of the political issues in the contract negotiations was this question of pension pickup, which the mayor said was non-negotiable. With this contract, it turns out, every current teacher will keep the pension pickup. Every new employee will not get the pension pickup, but CPS [Chicago Public Schools] offered to compensate for loss of the pension increase by the board increasing their base pay, dollar for dollar.
I guess what was considered “non-negotiable” turned out to be very negotiable.
I think it’s political posturing. It’s not like the CPS is creating a two-tier system. But they can claim they ended paying for the pension plan. Yet people will be compensated the same amount, just in a different form. Politically, people coming into the system will now “pay their own way.” It doesn’t save any money, but they wanted to do it anyway. Originally they hoped to save money. Then Emanuel backed off when they realized that it would provoke a strike.
Was there anything else that you felt that you absolutely couldn’t back away from?
Another issue that was hard-fought, and the board didn’t want to move on, is a bit obscure. Last year when the contract expired, the board unilaterally announced that it would not pay lanes and steps [the longstanding practice of increasing pay for years of experience and education].
We took them to the state’s Educational Labor Relations Board about that, but the labor board is now run by appointees of Gov. Bruce Rauner [the hard-line anti-labor Republican governor of Illinois].
We felt that we had a slam-dunk case. The Board of Education had refused to negotiate with us and unilaterally imposed a major change in terms and conditions of work. We felt that was a classic ULP [unfair labor practice], but who knows if the court would have upheld that.
We demanded restoration of lanes and steps, but it was clear to us that we weren’t going to get back pay for last year. The board had to borrow three-quarters of a billion dollars to make it through the year. But we did demand that they recognize the status they gave last year and provide a double-step, that is, get the step for last year from the board without it paying teachers in full. We wanted to establish the principle that you couldn’t skip steps and get away without paying for them.
Steps are crucial for your career works. If you don’t have steps, you could come out of college making $50,000 a year and 20 years later you’re still making $50,000.
One more important thing in the tentative agreement was a cap on charters. We don’t have the right to bargain over charter policy, but because of political pressure the board agreed in the tentative agreement to cap the number of charters at their present level for the remainder of the contract — the number of students at 101 percent of capacity now. I think that it’s the first time this has happened in the history of collective bargaining in this country.
I think it will put charters in a bind, if they count on runaway growth. But I suspect the board agreed to it partly because the bloom is already off that rose.
Are there any goals that you did not achieve or try to achieve because you believed the balance of power was against you?
There are a number of members of CTU who are disappointed by this tentative agreement because we did talk in an aspirational way about things we were not able to achieve. For example, we have clinicians — social workers — who have caseloads that include as many as 1,200 students. The people who deal with those students really work under tough conditions. We had talked in an aspirational way of things we needed in the schools, like a social worker in every school, especially with as much trauma and dislocation as we have in Chicago. It was a demand we were not able to achieve.
One of the tricks in bargaining a contract is that we try to enter negotiations by highlighting and lifting up our aspirations about what the schools should be. And then it always becomes an interesting question about how far you go — your assessment of the balance of forces, your best analysis of how much money can be had, how able and willing people are to fight, in our case, to strike, and all that has to go into an assessment of whether or not you’ve won.
Were people as ready to go as in 2012?
It was different in 2012. There was a kind of relish. There had been no strike in 25 years, and there was a built-up anger and real desire to hit back against all the teacher-bashing and a cocky mayor.
This time people were very aware that it would be much harder. The mayor had been much more careful. There has been an awful lot of bad economic news about the schools over the course of the last year. We had seen very deep cuts. People were cautious that there could be a very deep parent backlash against a strike after being hit with all the regressive taxes that had been hitting them.
On the other hand, the union was more organizationally prepared. We had a robust rank-and-file structure with 80 strike captains in place.
I don’t think people necessarily think about how difficult it is to keep a 25,000-member organization ready for battle for a year while the board dragged this process out. We were out with a mass rally in November in Grant Park, a strike authorization vote in December, another rally downtown against the threat of layoffs in February. We did a one-day strike that shut down the schools across the city in April that let the board see with their own eyes what it what it would look like to have more than 20,000 teachers, students, parents and community members in the streets. Then there was a mass demonstration in June around fair funding.
That meant that when we came back to work in the fall we were organized and ready to make the issue of a strike happen very soon, and we put the strike date right in the run-up to a major national election, which put additional pressure on Rahm.
Is there an organized “vote no” campaign?
I’ve seen people on Facebook and the Internet saying to “vote no.” I even heard people call the contract a “sellout.” I don’t think that’s a particularly serious position.
We said we thought we needed $500 per student. That wouldn’t produce schools like they have in New Trier [a wealthy suburb] or Finland. It would have funded all the things we were asking for. We didn’t get that. We got something closer to $300 per student in additional funding. The original number may have been a little aspirational, but we got a number of things we would not have gotten if we had not fought the way we did.
It’s the first time the mayor has to go into TIF funds to pay for a contract. I think it was a remarkable political achievement. It was the one thing he had left to avoid a strike. We called it out. There were north side Chicago parents going door-to-door in the mayor’s neighborhood calling for $200 million in TIF funds into the schools. They were on TV saying the money is there, the mayor has to make the schools a priority, and we have to protect the children from cuts. Put the money into the schools. Avoid a strike. That’s what we were saying, too, and we had strong organization.
Even if was the first time anyone has tapped into it, at least it was easier than getting a financial transaction tax on stock, futures, options and other financial markets.
I’m glad you said that, because it does point the way forward in important ways. TIF money was the target precisely because it was a pool of money that the mayor controls. But the bigger sources of funds are governed by state law, and Rauner stands in the way of a progressive income tax or a tax on the trading desks on LaSalle Street. None of us is under any impression that the funding crisis is over. We’ll have to keep fighting.
Do you see yourselves as having established a firmer footing with this contract in promoting your vision of the public schools in contrast with what city officials have promoted as reform?
In many ways our work in the last contract could be described as planting a flag of defiance to corporate school reformers, or deformers. The strike revealed that their plan was deeply unpopular. Our program has a wide base of support. But if you’re going to have a different school system, how do you fund it? How do we move to making real improvements in the schools? That’s been difficult in an era of real austerity.
I do think that one of the things going on here is that you have to grapple with the limits of militant trade unionism. If we want well-funded public institutions, maybe we should talk about how big corporations are offshoring trillions of dollars in profits, but that is well beyond the scope of a collective bargaining agreement. If you really want the students in Chicago to have a fair shake at a good life, it’s not just a question of what you do in the classroom but it’s also a question of systematic racism, of why society thinks it’s okay that thousands of people are being shot or that the institutions of the social welfare state have crumbled or that investment in the city all goes to downtown. All this is beyond collective bargaining agreements.
I think we have done some things in this contract to move back in the opposite direction, but they’re realty quite modest compared to the needs. I hope some of our more thoughtful members will join in a project for a better society that can’t be won in a contract book.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.